Sweep and Sweep and Sweep

My mother had an LP of Hansel and Gretel when she was little.  The expositiondescribed Gretel's evil stepmother in lilting polysyndeton: "She made Gretel sweep and clean and cook and sew."  However, this being the Dark Ages, recorded media was imperfect, and the record had a scratch, so the previous sentence became, "She made Gretel sweep and sweep and sweep and sweep . . . " and continued in this way the needle was bumped.

I was reminded of poor Gretel yesterday through a series of events.  My personal goal this Lent is to keep my house reasonably in order, such that I would not be embarrassed if someone stopped by unexpectedly. The thing is, cleaning is humbling -- maybe the most humbling job there is.  As a liberated citizen of the twenty-first century, it's hard for me to accept that my husband is the main breadwinner, that he works hard to support us, and that my most natural and  grateful response should be to work just as hard at my jobs: teaching, writing, and keeping our home so that it's a peaceful and lovely place to live.

The goal is to tidy one room per day, and yesterday I surveyed the kitchen.  It wasn't too bad: a few dishes to wash, recycling and compost to be taken outside, some old food to throw away.  And the floor.

Several years ago I put my foot down, literally and metaphorically, and decried the use of white sheet vinyl in kitchens.  There is just no way to keep it clean, I explained.  Rob kindly relented and we stuck down vinyl tiles over it, in a much more forgiving pattern of mottled "stone."  Now almost nothing shows up, and the temptation is to pretend it's as clean as it looks.  But if you're wearing socks and they're dirty at the end of the day, or if sandals and you feel crunching underfoot, you know the truth.

Out came the broom.  Sweep and sweep and sweep.  A nice, satisfying pile of dust and dirt.  Lunch was almost ready; the sweet potatoes were starting to squeal in the oven.  I decided to get a head start on breakfast by soaking my Irish oatmeal.  Quickly, open the freezer, grab the can by the top and --

If you haven't done this, been deceived by a cute canister with an ill-fitting lid, then you really have no idea of the quality of steel-cut oats when dropped on a clean vinyl tile floor in 2-cup portions.  They're a little like tiny ball bearings, making a most pleasing bouncy sound as they fall, roll and scatter to all corners of your previously-clean kitchen.  I actually laughed.  Then I thought, "Well, at least the floor is clean.  I learned a lesson here!"  The broom, again: sweep and sweep and sweep.  A nice, neat pile of oats.  But as I turned to drop them back into the can, I looked more closely.  There was some dirt -- well, to be honest, quite a bit of dirt -- in the pan with them.  I actually thought of rinsing them, but decided that was too much even for a cheapskate.  Into the garbage.

Now I reopened the freezer door to survey the damage: a rolling landscape of mounded oats all over the bottom shelf of the freezer, nearly burying the door of the closed refrigerator.  I touched the mountain -- just touched it -- and a cascade of oats rained down onto the floor again, tappity-tappity-tap.  After a few more similar showers, I gave up trying to keep the floor clean and scooped them out of the freezer, putting handfuls back into the can and consigning the extras to the floor.  In the end I needed to use a sponge, in the process wiping up several spills I hadn't noticed previously.  How do things get this dirty?

Finally, I opened the fridge, and a line of oats neatly hidden in the folds of the rubber seal tumbled into the egg tray, the shelves and the crisper drawers.  (Yes, they somehow made it into the drawers.)  Again, out came the sponge, and again, I was most displeased to find that the refrigerator was not nearly as clean as I'd imagined.  Ugh.

I crunched over to the oven and turned off the potatoes.  One more time with the broom, this time all over the floor -- those oats were awfully determined to get away.  Sweep and sweep and sweep.  Again, a pile of oats and dirt; I gave up wondering where it had come from and was just grateful it was going into the trash now.

Lunch was wonderful, maybe all the more so for the wait until the oats (now transferred to a Ziploc bag) were safely back in the freezer.  And an hour later, in walked my students, tracking mud and dirt in a trail from the door to the piano bench and back again.  I swept (and swept and swept) it up.  A thankless, never-ending task if ever there were one.  A task to keep you humble.